Arts Interview: Critical Thinking Comedian Ian Harris

An Interview With Critical Thinking Comedian Ian Harris

Clarke Conde
11 min read
Ian Harris
(courtesy of the artist)
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Ian Harris is the kind of rare comic who doesn’t simply make fun of people’s foibles, but of their core beliefs. It is an honored tradition in comedy whose practitioners include some of the seminal talents that defined the genre from Lenny Bruce to George Carlin to Richard Pryor. It is bound to upset some people and Harris is fine with that. He considers it an opportunity for everyone to think a little bit harder about why people believe what they believe. Somewhere in that statement is where comedy transcends into art.

This weekend, Harris is joined by Ron Swallow, Maurice Northup, Sarah Kennedy and Dawn Elizabeth Schary at the Aux Dog Theater for three comedy shows, but Friday night is all about superstitions. Harris thinks superstitions are hilarious. For over 20 years, he has found the funny in the ridiculous assertions that guide people’s lives. Skeptics, rationalists and quibblers will find an evening of jokes that skewer the believers of things unseen and poorly documented.
Weekly Alibi spoke to Harris about superstitions, conspiracies and a little bit about Stevie Wonder. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

Weekly Alibi: Your upcoming show on Friday the 13th is about superstitions. What’s so super about superstitions? Don’t they cause more trouble than they’re worth?

Ian Harris: They absolutely do, which is why they’re rife for making fun of. My comedy over the last 20-some years has turned into me talking a lot about superstitions, beliefs and things like that because we believe as a society a lot of weird, goofy things and I find them quite hilarious. So why not talk about it?

Stevie Wonder said, “When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer.” Do you think that is true?

I do, actually. I mean, on some level, it’s innocent and it’s not a huge deal, but if it gets in your way of doing things that you want to do, or if it gets in the way of other people’s rights. If you’re passing legislation and you’re stopping other people from doing things because of your superstitions, you’re suffering and other people are suffering. I am watching the political circus that we have going on and it’s delusional at some point. I don’t think suffering delusions is ever a good thing.

The Stevie Wonder Truthers say that he may not be blind.

Is that really a thing? Are you kidding?

It’s 100 percent a thing, but it leads me to the question, how do superstitions relate to conspiracies?

I think all conspiracies are basically born out of superstitions. Because, you have the start with the superstition and it could even be something that’s kind of based in reality. It could even be like you don’t trust the government. Okay, well, sometimes there are reasons to not trust the government, but that’s not a blanket statement that should be applied all the time. Does that mean to disregard anything that’s ever said by anybody who’s ever involved in the government, which is what happened. So, it starts out as question everything. And then it becomes, people in the government sometimes have done some shady stuff. And then it becomes, if the government says it, it’s the opposite. [Then] it becomes, you’ll do anything to build this ridiculous argument to support your superstition that everything the government does is out to get you.

Since its inception, this country has had an aspect to it that was faith based. Has that changed or evolved over time?

In some areas it hasn’t changed at all. We still have people trying to pass legislation that’s based on religion. I’ve also found that a lot of people, even in a kind of secular world, they’re not religious anymore, but they don’t get to their irrreligiosity via critical thinking and skepticism, they get to it through a different emotional plea. Something happens and they lose their faith. I think when that happens, a lot of times they replace it with something else. They replace it with a different sort of superstition or a different sort of faith in something. I have friends that their new religion is their food. Everything has to be organic and non-GMO and non-gluten. It’s become this crazy religion that you can’t even talk to them about or they get incredibly upset because you’re testing their faith.

Do you do an accent?

I do a Southern accent. It’s funny because I don’t even mean to necessarily do that, but for some reason when I started trying to do a character who’s arguing some sort of crazy religious argument or I do a character that’s a hardcore right-wing nut or whatever, he’s some sort of Southern guy. It’s always that guy. It’s probably due to the fact that I’ve got a lot of friends and family that are not necessarily too bright that are from the South so that sometimes I just immediately picture the uncle who I’ve had way too many run ins with.

You are a pretty outspoken atheist. Have you ever considered doing a bit where you extend the Foxworthy thing—you know you’re an atheist when …

It’s funny because I have not, but I actually I’ve been asked a few times. People say, “Hey, you make fun of a lot of stuff,” which I do. I don’t just make fun of religion, I try to talk about all beliefs. People say, “You don’t really make fun of atheism. You make fun of some of your other beliefs and other people’s beliefs.” Maybe because I just don’t see anything funny there. To me there’s got be some sort of fault in your logic for me to poke the hole in it, to make it funny. What am I going to do? Rationality. Huh. That’s weird.

What are your favorite superstitions?

The more ridiculous ones are always more interesting to me. I think the feng shui thing is kind of hilarious. You know, the direction you point your bed when you sleep is going to somehow bring you good luck. I always find weird contradictory positions to be funny. If you want something to happen, you will it to you by thinking about it. But when I was a kid, if you said something like, I had this job interview and I’m really excited to maybe get this job. People would always go, “whoa, be quiet. It might jinx it.” It’s like, which one am I supposed to believe? If I think about something that’ll magically come to me, but if I talk about it, it’ll ruin it. When can I think and when can I talk about these different kinds of superstitions cracks me up because they don’t make any sense. Walking under a ladder and breaking a mirror? Is there some sort of cosmic agency that is responsible for the purveyance of bad luck because it just seemed like a weird, arbitrary things to dole out seven years of bad luck for.

Do you get people coming up to you after your shows who want to fight?

Oddly enough, I actually own a MMA [mixed martial arts] gym in Los Angeles and I train in MMA. I’ve had people yell at me and shout a few things out like they’re planning on it, but no one ever really does. I always secretly wanted someone to attack me onstage so that I could choke them out and then have a viral video. The funny thing is, I’ve said that so many times to people out loud that if that were to happen, I feel people would be like, he faked it. It’s staged. I did have a guy in Oregon one time, he was very drunk, and he started calling me all sorts of names. I did a Trump joke. Oddly, it wasn’t about religion. It was the politics that got him mad and it wasn’t even that weird or offensive of a Trump joke. He got really angry and started calling me all sorts of names and challenged me. And I said, you’re more than welcome to come up here onstage if you want to throw down a little bit. He threatened me [and called me a] libtard pussy or something like that. I said, all right, come on up here and we can see if that’s true or not. He quickly backed off and walked out of the room.

How do we get smarter?

That is a good question. I don’t know that we can get smarter. That’s a genetic thing. But I think we could get more educated. I think that comes down to teaching critical thinking and teaching where we get good evidence from. The internet is this wealth of information. That could be good information or disinformation and if you don’t really know how to check sources, and if you don’t really know what is a good source, and you’re a person who only reads headlines, you’re going to get really easily duped. I find nowadays that people get their information from memes and headlines. People will say, Oh, I heard that this thing happened and I’ll go, no, that was a headline. If you actually read the story, the opposite is true. [The headline] was just to grab you to read the thing. People will base their beliefs on things that they saw on a meme or facts that aren’t facts or quotes that aren’t even attributable to the person that they’re attributing them to. That’s really dangerous. I think we need to, as a society, start teaching kids where to look for information, how to vet what’s true, how to find the proper sources and who is reliable, and then how to put those together by thinking critically. Those are the two biggest skills that I find missing when I have discussions with people. Hopefully, comedy can do a little bit of that. You look at some of the great comics like George Carlin, Bill Hicks and Richard Pryor, a lot of what they did was critical thinking and making really good points while making you laugh. To me, that’s what great comedy does. It doesn’t just make you laugh. It makes you think and creates a discussion.

You’ve got three shows here with Albuquerque native Ron Swallow and some other comedians. What can people expect?

Ron is a very nerdy guy as well, so you can expect a lot of good nerdy comedy. We both try to keep it smart. We both try to keep it fun and interesting and original and sometimes edgy. There’s not going to be a lot of gratuitous toilet humor. Hopefully you’ll find good, smart, clever humor that maybe touches on some fun subjects and maybe touches on some touchy subjects. We’ve also got another local guy who has been a friend of mine for a long time, Maurice Northup, who is opening for us. And we have a couple of guests, Sarah Kennedy and Dawn Schary. It’s going to be really fun.

The first show on Friday is the superstition show. Then you are doing two sets back to back on Saturday. Are those your normal show?

My normal show covers a lot of this kind of stuff to begin with, but what we’re going to do is, myself, Ron and Maurice, we’re going to make sure that the jokes that we do on those sets are heavily based on superstitions, Friday the 13th and all those sorts of things. That whole show is going to be about things we believe in and superstition. Then Saturday there will still probably be a big healthy dose all of that. Friday is going to be our fun show. I think the Albuquerque skeptics are all coming out and then we’re going to do a little after party afterward. All the shows are going to be really fun and really good, but Friday will be unique.

Ian Harris and Ron Swallow

Friday, Dec. 13, 8pm and Saturday, Dec. 14, 7pm and 9pm

Aux Dog Theatre Nob Hill

3011 Monte Vista Blvd. NE

Ages 18+

Tickets: $15

Ian Harris

courtesy of the artist

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